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Truly Inconvenient Truths

What we’re loath to talk about when we talk about Israel and Lebanon.


Al Gore’s movie about global warming has a brilliant title: It flatters us—those of us who believe the scientific consensus about climate change—that we are clear-eyed and honest and brave enough to admit this “inconvenient truth” that the Bush administration and its reckless, craven, venal corporate allies refuse to admit. Yet the truth about greenhouse gases, although plenty scary, is really not so inconvenient: The blame for inaction is easy to lay on others, a solution seems possible, and that solution doesn’t look that onerous.

Whereas concerning the Middle East, there is for most of us no obvious overriding analysis, let alone fix. Concerning Israel and the Palestinian territories, all the truths tend to be truly, deeply, tragically inconvenient.

And the big one is this: Israel is a good and miraculous nation that deserves the support of civilized people, but the great unfortunate fact about its creation—being carved by the U.N. out of Arab land in 1947—cannot be ignored or wished away. We have no choice but to support Israel, even though the Israeli Defense Forces are killing civilians, dozens a day, in Lebanon. All of those deaths, one wants to believe, are unintentional, unavoidable mistakes. Yet as Richard Cohen wrote in his Washington Post column last week, “Israel itself is a mistake . . . an honest mistake, a well-intentioned mistake, a mistake for which no one is culpable [but which] has produced a century of warfare and terrorism of the sort we are seeing now.” Sixty years on, there can be no revising or reversing that mistake—and when the choice is Israel versus unaccommodating Islamist fanatics, we must be for Israel. Is there any more inconvenient truth?

So it was no surprise that as Israel waged its retaliatory war against Hezbollah and Hamas (zealots, Fascists, nihilists, pawns of Iran and Syria, all of the above), the blogospheric liberals, usually promiscuous with opinions, were averting their eyes, changing the subject, punting—like Republicans are inclined to do about global warming. Markos Moulitsas Zúniga, the Democratic power broker known as Kos, was quite open about his willful disengagement: In a post titled “Why I won’t write about Israel/Lebanon/Palestine fighting,” he said that he “sure as heck ha[s] no desire to get sucked into that no-win situation.” “I wish I had had something brilliant to say about Israel and Lebanon, et al.,” Eric Alterman blogged, then went on to use the crisis as a pretext for his 10,000th easy shot at Bush and the war in Iraq.

But who can entirely blame him? Last year, a writer in the Boston Globe called Alterman a self-hating Jew after he had written that the Palestinians “lost their homeland” as a result of the Holocaust and the 1947 partition, and that he and other supporters of Israel—us—are partly responsible for the Palestinians’ present suffering.

Thus another of the inconvenient truths: It’s essentially impossible to conduct a frank, good-faith public debate in the U.S. about U.S. policy toward Israel and the Palestinians—just as it’s probably impossible to have frank, good-faith public debates in Muslim countries about policy toward Israel and the Palestinians. In the four months since two eminent American political scientists (Stephen Walt of Harvard and John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago) published an article called “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy,” they have been both strenuously ignored and unjustly besmirched as anti-Semites. I don’t buy Walt and Mearsheimer’s argument that the U.S. invaded Iraq primarily to indulge the Israel lobby. However, the attempt to thrash out our specific U.S. interests in the Middle East as distinct from the interests of our great Middle Eastern ally is important and difficult—an inconvenient truth that our politics and even our discourse are practically incapable of considering.

And so we consume the latest news with only a deepening hopelessness and edge-of-Armageddon dread and a sense, looking at the pictures of fresh rubble, of how quickly the nightmare can descend. Wallpaper last month ran a column saying that Beirut was “healing beautifully,” with new buildings by Steven Holl and Philippe Starck. “Boom time is now.” A few weeks ago, two New York friends of mine were in Beirut trying to decide whether to accept positions at the American University. Potential danger didn’t figure much in their considerations. Another family friend just moved to Israel, where her boyfriend is an army officer who (according to her mother’s e-mail) “thinks that Israel is acting out of proportion, but it must defend itself. The insane ongoing duality of this complicated situation.”

INSANE ONGOING DUALITY: If only there were just two confusing, contradictory ideas and impulses at play as we Americans try to figure out what to think or do about the Middle East. The complications and flux of the new Great Game are harrowing—ironic, isn’t it, that someone as unsubtle and one-track-minded as George Bush helped usher in this complex new era? His instincts about the present crisis may be correct—get the U.N. to “get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this shit”—but imagine him just trying to keep the sectarian vectors straight: Iran is Shiite, as is Hezbollah (which in Lebanon tends to make allies of the Sunnis and Christians); Syria and Hamas (and most of the Palestinians) are Sunni, as are the Saudis and Jordanians; and although we liberated the Shiite majority in Iraq, the Sunnis there now suddenly want us to stick around to protect them from revenge by the Shiites whom they, the Sunnis, tyrannized under Saddam and have been massacring since the U.S. invasion.


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